Council tax arrears

If you’re struggling to pay your council tax, get in touch with your council as soon as possible. You may be able to spread your payments out over a longer time. You may also qualify for Council Tax Reduction. Failure to pay your tax or make an arrangement with the council can have serious consequences.

Dealing with council tax arrears


If you miss a council tax payment, the council should send you a reminder giving you seven days to pay, otherwise you lose the right to pay in installments.

If you did not pay the installment, your second reminder will state that you have 14 days to pay the whole amount outstanding for the remainder of the financial year. Some councils may still accept payments in installments., but this will depend on their discretion.

Do not ignore council tax reminders, contact the council as soon as you get your first reminder.
If you are struggling to pay your council tax you should contact your council as soon as possible, and make an offer of payments which you can afford.
If you receive benefits such as JSA or ESA, or are on a low income, you could get Council Tax Reduction (formerly Council Tax Benefit).
You are still liable to pay your council tax in full while your claim is being processed, so you should submit your claim even if you are not sure of your entitlement.

If you fail to make the required payments, you will receive a summons. This is a court document stating the amount you are required to pay, which will include costs as well as the tax arrears. You have the right to attend and explain the situation.

The summons must be heard at least 14 days prior to the hearing date. The summons can be served by posting it to your last known address. This isn’t normally a problem, since council tax refers to the property where you live, however, it can be an issue if you have moved and the council has not been notified or if the tax is for another property you own.

If you do not attend, the council will obtain a liability order. A liability order allows the council to take enforcement action, such as sending bailiffs to seize goods.

If you are able to pay, you can make a payment using your debit card, otherwise you may need to submit a budget sheet with an offer of weekly or monthly installments. The council may decide to cancel the summons and waive the court costs if you keep to the agreement.

If you dispute the debt, contact the council straight away with your reasons, for example, because you were not living in the property at the time.

Liability Order hearing

Magistrates CourtAt the hearing, the magistrates will decide whether you are liable for the council tax and make a liability order. You don’t need to attend the hearing if you agree that you are liable for the tax.

The court will usually make the order unless you have already paid the tax or the council has not followed proper procedure, stated the wrong name on the summons or you can prove to the court that you are not liable for the tax.

You can ask the court to adjourn the hearing if you have applied for Council Tax Reduction or if you have appealed to a valuation tribunal because you don’t agree you are responsible for the tax or you don’t agree with the amount.

If the council has not taken you to court for a liability order within six years of you becoming due to pay your Council Tax, they cannot continue to collect the debt. This depends on when the council served a demand notice on you.
Liability Order enforcement
Once an order has been obtained, the council can demand that you and your partner (if applicable), give them details of your financial circumstances. You can be fined for not providing this information.

The council can take steps to recover the tax owed by the following means:

  • attachment of earningsAttachment of earnings. Getting your employer to make deductions from your wages if you are employed. If you owe more than one year’s Council Tax, you can have a maximum of two attachment of earnings orders. The amounts taken from your wages are dependent on your earnings. You can ask the council to accept lower payments if this will cause you hardship. You should be prepared to explain why you cannot afford the set amount. See attachment of earnings for more information.
  • Deductions from benefits. The council can get the DWP to make deductions from benefits such as Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Pension Credit or Income Support.
  • Bailiffs. The council can send bailiffs to your home to seize goods to be sold. Bailiffs are not allowed to take some essential household items and cannot force their way in unless you have previously let them in. The can seize your car and any goods located outside your home, for example, garden equipment. See bailiffs for more information.
  • Bankruptcy. If your debt is over £5,000, the council could petition your bankruptcy. This may include arrears from several years. See bankruptcy for more information.
  • Charging order. The council could apply for a charge on your property to secure the debt on your home if you own it and the debt is over £1,000. This doesn’t happen often. See charging orders for more information.
If the council has sent bailiffs and the tax is still outstanding, they can apply to the Magistrates’ Court for a warrant to send you to prison.
If the council believe you have the means to pay and are refusing to pay, they can apply to the court for a committal warrant to send you to prison. You will receive a committal summons with the details of the hearing.
Committal hearing and imprisonment

gavel and books

The court must hold an enquiry with you present. This is to find out if you can afford to pay the bill. If the court doesn’t think you have a valid reason for not paying, it can send you to prison for up to 3 months.

If you do not attend the hearing, you could be arrested. If you are unable to attend, you should contact the council as soon as possible to arrange an alternative date.
The council can add the cost of the summons and hearing to your debt.

The magistrates will look at your financial situation and you should explain your circumstances and any reasons why you haven’t been able to pay.

If you are in financial hardship, you can ask the magistrates to write off all or part of the debt, this is done only in exceptional circumstances.
  • The court should not send you to prison if you can show that you cannot afford to pay due to your circumstances.
  • You can be sent to prison if it can be shown that you have refused to pay or failed to make an effort to pay, however, they will usually postpone the warrant as long as you make regular payments towards the debt.
  • You can take a solicitor to the hearing. You may qualify for Legal Aid or the court may have a duty solicitor.
  • You can ask someone to accompany you, but, unless they are a solicitor, they court may not always let the other person speak on your behalf.
  • If the magistrates agreed to let you pay in installments, you should keep up your repayments until the debt is paid off.
  • If you are unable to pay, you should contact the council straight away, explaining your circumstances, and make another arrangement. If you fail to do this, you could be arrested and brought back to the court.
The High Court has advised magistrates that the purpose of committal is to make people pay rather than punishment. This means both magistrates and local authorities should look at alternative methods of enforcement.

Council tax is often collected by private firms of bailiffs on behalf of your local council. They try to take your goods away and sell them to raise money to pay the debt.

Check that the bailiff is certificated. There is an online register of certificated bailiffs.

The bailiffs should give you seven clear days’ notice that they are due to visit you. This is sometimes known as an ‘enforcement notice’. ‘Clear days’ do not include Sundays, Christmas Day or bank holidays. Contact the council and try to make an arrangement to pay what you can afford immediately. See bailiffs for more information.

Don’t let the bailiffs in! If they have not been inside your home before to collect this debt, they have no right to come in. They cannot break in.
Don’t let doors or windows unlocked, bailiffs can legally enter your home through them if you leave them unlocked. New regulations mean they cannot enter through an open window but it’s best to be safe than sorry.
Bailiffs CAN take goods from outside your home, such as greenhouses and garden sheds. They can also take your car, bike or motorbike.
Bring your bike inside the house, park your car a few streets away or keep it in a locked garage.
Don’t let them fool you into letting them in to use the toilet, your phone or anything else. Don’t sign anything.
If you haven’t let the bailiffs in, and they haven’t been able to list any of your goods, then it is best to make payments directly to the council. If you have made regular payments to the council and can show that you are paying the arrears off, you can ask the council to take the account back from the bailiffs.
If you don’t allow the bailiffs to seize goods and/or the account is returned to the council, this is not the end of the matter, the council can still issue a committal summons.
Always deal with priority debts first. If funds are limited, non-priority creditors can wait!
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